Joe Biel | Reviews

April 2011
Joe Biel: New Work
by Suzanne Beal

During the sixties and seventies, primates were all the rage. The science fiction film Planet of the Apes fostered no less than five sequels. Zoologist and anthropologist Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, a study of the human species focusing on man's similarity to apes, was an international bestseller. And the discovery of Lucy, a hominid who lived approximately 3.2 million years ago, instantly became a household name. These events fueled interest in animal behavior and how – if at all – it differed from that of man. With rampant displays of human violence both on and off American soil, monkeys often came out ahead.

Most visitors to the zoo go in search of animal antics. But Biel, who perused thousands of magazines and Google images, was mining the expressions and gestures of monkeys in order to convey the breadth of human psychological experience. In twelve intimately sized paintings, Biel presents the quietest of images, offering viewers interior landscapes instead of exterior activities.

Biel's previous work contains a plethora of phantasmagorical minutiae in finely detailed drawings: humans wandering among stark trees, abandoned musical instruments, gumball machines, defecating dogs, and architectural edifices that read simultaneously as constructed and destructed. Much like these half-built, half-bombed sites, the animals in his current paintings hint at an ambiguous state of existence, one in which evolution and de-evolution run neck to neck.

The new wave art rock band Devo formed in 1973, and by 1978 they'd released their debut album, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We are DEVO!  The group's formation, and their underlying warning about human herd mentality, was largely the result of member Jerry Casale's attendance at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, when four unarmed college students died under fire from Ohio National Guardsmen. DEVO, short for de-evolution, speculated that rather than evolving, the species as a whole was regressing. Their lyrics describe a world in which monkeys, humans, and god are on equal footing: “God made man, but he used the monkey to do it, apes in the plan and we're all here to prove it, I can walk, like an ape, talk like an ape, do like a monkey do, god made man, but the monkey supplied the glue."

Biel makes manifest the ape/man duality by gracing his simian subjects with human accessories. If audiences recognize the props used by the primates in Biel's pictures, the same can't be said for his animals who either idly fondle the items at their disposal or remain unaware of their purpose. In Monkey (Radio) a lone primate sits forlornly next to the only means of communication in sight. The tufted creature in Monkey (Orb) palms a golden ball while grasping an hourglass between his toes, and Monkey (Map) shows a hysterical primate planted atop a map of France – brutish behavior strictly at odds with the civilized pursuit of charting and mapping. In failing to master the tools they've been given, Biel's monkeys seem almost … human. Zoologist and author Desmond Morris claimed that humans possessed the largest brain of any primate. How then to explain the plundering of natural resources, countless wars, concentration camps?

Are we not men?

Biel's current work is in part inspired by German photographer August Sander, a member of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), an arts movement that promoted a detached aesthetic and, for some artists, a return to order in the wake of WWI atrocities. During the twenties and thirties, Sander produced a series of photographs collectively titled People of the Twentieth Century – a massive undertaking that sought to create a comprehensive pictorial index of German society at the turn of the 20th century. Sander's subjects are presented in documentary style, organized into seven parts according to their social class and trade, and photographed in non-descript backgrounds against which their minimal accessories shoulder the responsibility of communicating who and what they are. The clear-cut significance of utilitarian objects is not so readily apparent in Biel's watercolor and latex on panel paintings, where tools don't so much support their subjects, as reveal an innate susceptibility.

Monkey (Celan) shows a monkey burdened with a chalkboard strung around its neck. On it is written in graceful white cursive, "sag, daß Jerusalem, ist," (say, that Jerusalem, is). The line is taken from a poem titled Poles penned by Romanian born poet, Paul Celan, a holocaust survivor who later committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine. Much of Celan's work addresses the horror of the Shoah. Biel's wild-haired monkey stares directly out at the viewer as a piece of chalk hangs limply from the board.

What is war if not a supreme rupture in the lives of the living – a halfway house between existence and non existence. Identity can be stripped -- a nakedness brought about through the shaving of heads, and the repossession of clothes and property, but can it be stifled? Biel has packed a porpoise into a sardine can -- revealing as much as possible with as little as possible. Like Sander, Biel's monkeys are pared down examples of human experience, communicating an immense lexicon via the absence of the most basic exterior clues. Yet Biel has pushed the idea of man's making one step further, by asking what and who we are once the packaging is removed. In Monkey (Key), the largest of the twelve paintings, a primate leans over the edge of a wooden plank holding a string at the end of which dangles a skeleton key.  Will it be dropped into the abyss or hoisted back up? And if retrieved, will its owner know what to make of it? Biel makes no promises. One way or another, we'll have to make do with the tools we've got.

The Huffington Post
Big Wall, Slow Pace. The New Work of Joe Biel.
by Ethan Murrow
Read pdf here
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The following article is taken from Art Papers, January/February 2004:
The Un-Storyteller by Pat Boas

Walter Benjamin once characterized storytellers as those who offer us comfort and counsel by spinning daily experience into captivating tales. While Joe Biel's spare, graceful drawings of solitary figures in impossible situations might not provide much useful advice for negotiating this world, they look as though they may come in handy should we stumble into some Beckett-like zone. Biel's interest in narrative already has taken more than a few turns, yet he doesn't consider himself a storyteller. 'Not that I wouldn't want to be,' he said during a recent conversation in Portland, Oregon, 'but if I try to look at the work from a distance, as much as that is possible, I realize that what I'm really interested in is charging images with narrative possibilities.'

pastel and graphite on paper on panel, 10 by 10 inches

Over the past three years, the LA-based Biel has produced a visual compendium of all the ridiculous, unfortunate and anxiety-producing things that come into his head. His desire to achieve what he calls "the most direct visual transaction" with the viewer marks a return to the conventions of straightforward illustration. The drawings feature more or less generic characters - the central figure is often a youngish male with a shaved head, sometimes naked, sometimes wearing a pair of striped pajamas - caught in a frozen moment after something absurd, or even mildly horrific (Biel forces us to put these two words together), has happened. They depend largely on the cartoon's built-in blunting of experience. Cruelties may have just occurred, but the characters, some pierced or hacked or standing waist-high in swirling water, hardly seem to notice. And if danger and pain pack no wallop, pleasure is equally dulled. Melancholy, at once nostalgic and perverse, tinges the humor that rises to the top. "They are like bombed-out structures that have one little place where you can set your stuff up," Biel says. Though the compositions begin with regular sessions of people watching, inspired by a gesture or a glance, Biel is more interested in how it felt "back then." He sees himself fashioning retreats into a world where the past has more force than the present, "the way medieval music gives you a total impression of that era in a flash."

Target Head (detail), 2003
pastel and graphite on paper on panel, 12 by 12 inches

Benjamin maintained that "traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel." A brief look into Biel's background bears out Benjamin's claim. The son of a violin professor, Biel grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. There, for all its middle-American trappings, his childhood was steeped in Mitteleuropean culture. He studied painting and art history at Drake University before earning his MFA at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he joined forces with Richard Kraft, a London-born photographer equally involved in the traditions of European Humanism. Establishing a base in Portland, Oregon, the two began to collaborate on increasingly complex site-specific installations and cryptic, gesture-based performances. For the next seven years Kraft and Biel constructed non-linear narrative environments immersed in an old-world sensibility, piling up hundreds of appropriated nineteenth century engravings, found and fabricated objects, fictional documents, and original paintings and photographs.

In 2000 the pair moved to Los Angeles and began working independently. Biel's current work may be both a direct result of and a reaction to his work with Kraft. "I realized that narrative had always been a kind of monkey on my back, but it had been a problem only because up to that point I felt compelled to stand clearly on one side of narrative or the other - to embrace it or reject it entirely. Finally I began to realize that I could leave the issue in the middle, in a sort of murky pool of water. I began to focus on details like expression, character type, clothing, objects, environment, aspects of time, and I found the weight of the monkey became lighter and at times almost comforting.

Whisper, 2003
pastel and graphite on paper on panel, 12 by 12 inches

The work earned him a Pollock/Krasner grant and has been exhibited in several cities around the United States and Europe. Given Biel's interest in how viewers construct meaning, showing in other countries has been instructive. At the Frankfurt Art Fair, he noted, "people tended to approach the work with different expectations. They took the literary roots for granted and regarded the drawings more as parables. You meet up with new ideas in different places and though the work is not about place, it's interesting to see how different cultural influences foster different readings."

While in London last summer he visited the National Gallery to study paintings by artists like Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden. "I realized that what really interested me was not the story that was being told, but the strangeness of the world these painted figures and their often stranger environments created. It was all in the details, the strange distortion of a head or a hand, the way a gesture seemed forced when compared with photographic naturalism. Or the fact that the rider was too big for the horse so that a sort of toy-like quality invaded the whole scene, or that the artist set the scene partially in his own time and place and partially in a place with some biblical or historical reality so that the combination created an almost surrealistic quality. All those details hinted at their own narratives, always quite independent of the larger, usually biblical, narrative. But at the same time the larger narrative was absolutely necessary as a structure to hold the details."

That interest in what the hand produces - beyond an artist's desire or intention - drives Biel's work now. Newer drawings include characters with more distinctive features in more elaborate settings. Gradually situations are replacing gestures as the motivating force, and Biel eventually may realize his ambition of creating an epic approaching the scale of Breugel or Bosch. But whether striving toward a gesture or a theatrical extravaganza, the question of what Cezanne called "thinking in images," of finding and illuminating the story, remains.

Joe Biel is represented by Greg Kucera in Seattle and Mark Woolley Gallery in Portland. His work will be in the group show "Drawn Fictions" at Marylhurst University's Art Gym January 1-February 13, 2004.

PAT BOAS is an artist and writer in Portland, Oregon. Her work will appear in the "Drawn Fictions" show this spring. Her most recent contribution to ART PAPERS was a review of Stan Gardner in the May/June issue.

The following article is taken from The Art Gym's exhibition text by director/curator Terri M. Hopkins:
DRAWN FICTIONS January 12 - February 1, 2004

The drawings in Drawn Fictions are essentially forms of illustration. They are not foremost about mark making, or the love of ink or charcoal or pastel, but are primarily concerned with suggesting a story, depicting a cast of characters, or inventing a taxonomy of objects. They remind one of the illustrations in children's novels that appear every twenty pages or so to reward the reader of all those words, or of books of strange scientific illustrations or fantastic architecture. In all these drawings the viewer is allowed and encouraged to invent the scenario, to flesh out the tale, or to imagine a different world.

This approach to drawing as a depiction of a moment in a larger narrative is shared by Joe Biel, Joseph Park, and Jay Stuckey.

...Joe Biel's characters occupy the page with a preordained certainty. Even so, they often find themselves in a quandary, struggling to hear or see or make sense of their situation, or worse, under siege.

In recent drawings Biel hangs binoculars around one man's neck, but bandages another man's eyes, then lets another walk about with a knife in his back. Although we often see related characters in several drawings, we are unsure of their relationship or of their place in a larger narrative.

The Ghost In Your Pocket
by Eve Wood

Joseph Biel, is an artist living and working in Los Angeles, whose most recent exhibition at The Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, Washington poses a vision, assaultingly beautiful. Biel draws, not what he sees, but what he knows could possibly be delineated, if standing in the proper light, (or darkness), on a cold day, or a hot day, walking or standing still. The literal conditions do not matter; only the metaphoric temperature is charted as it rises and falls, wherein delicacy becomes a barometer by which we understand desire and culpability, loss, and a strange, though wondrous derangement of self. The dictionary defines a ghost as " The seat of life or intelligence; a disembodied soul; E.S.P.: the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world, or to appear to the living in bodily likeness; a red blood cell that has lost its hemoglobin." The first definition seems oddly appropriate when thinking about Biel's work, in that the lines, the demarcations Biel sets down on paper, are unequivocal, and seem to stem directly

from the artist's central nervous system, if only in metaphor. This "freakishness" is not freakish for the sake of itself, but toward a much larger, deeper psychology. These drawings encompass private hauntings, like ghosts that have lost themselves and do not know it. They keep searching. They drift through walls, endlessly, but is there ever an end for a ghost? There is no respite from the grief that got them there. They hold their own eyes open, to light the way they cannot see, but no light is given, only the compulsion to roam, and there is both sadness and danger in this.

But Biel does not conflate "self" with danger; so much as attribute to the self the capacity to be mutable, like a ghost, changing shape, walking through walls. In one drawing, a man and woman engage in fellatio atop a high wire, and though the elements of danger are all in place, the elegance of their bodies, and the sense of an implied narrative (do these two people do this sort of thing on a regular basis? Is this event taking place after a horrendous argument? Or are these trapeze artists trying simply to "spice up" their act?) give this drawing an added rigor and dimensionally. Looking at this drawing, one does feel palpably the sense of danger, however, it has less to do with the fact these two people could fall, and more to do with the realization that desire takes precedence over the will to live.

In another drawing, a mountainous pile of bones appears like a million dead possibilities. The drawing (detail seen above and at left) is overwhelming in its attention to detail, in its precise and studied grace, and if one looks at it long enough, the bones no longer appear to be bones, but could be small implements, minute medical instruments, or virtually anything you want them to be. Again, as with other of Biel?s drawings, the hidden narrative, the ghosts implied in each image, are what make these drawings fascinating. Furthermore, the ghosts Biel invokes are carried with you once you leave the space where first you encountered them, and insinuate themselves into your memory. They stay with you like small, ubiquitous tokens, something you might carry in your pocket, and though you might temporarily neglect their significance (because often their significance relates to grief or some fractured possibility) you will not forget their psychic currency.

In yet another drawing, "Five Figures," Biel presents us with five men immersed waist-high in water, their backs to the viewer. Their bald heads become conduits of energy: one man incites the rain to fall on his head only, while another balances an empty cup atop his head, as if to catch the rain

From a storm that will never come. One man must contend with more than he can handle, while the other hopes to catch one drop, while further on down the row yet another man breaks a small stick across his skull. Perhaps each of the figures represents five possible means of connecting with a greater spirituality, or maybe each of these men has already achieved nirvana in the wake of some personal tragedy, and each has his transformative method.

Each has his private ghost. The "ghosts" Biel invokes in these images depend upon a suspension, not of belief (we believe everything we see here), but of the need for a happy ending. If happy endings are possible at all, they are tinged with grief, sardonic humor, and a macabre sense of realism. The power in these images is sustained through the "trace," a vacancy that is suddenly filled, only to be emptied out again without warning. We want it filled. We want it empty, and Biel has the uncanny ability to satisfy both these needs simultaneously. Biel's is a slow motion exodus into the self and out again, and back in. Biel recuperates mystery in these intense, tightly rendered drawings, wherein the images ask questions of themselves, and not the usual fare by any means. Where another less complicated work might ask: what exactly does the bulls eye painted on the back of a man's head say about that man? Is he being punished? Biel takes this obvious association, the obvious question, and turns it into a pernicious, inescapable personal mandate, where the question spins in on itself, becoming an imperceptible, yet revelatory moment that extends well beyond the picture plane. Ghosts? Yes, ghosts, derived from strangeness, incongruency, humor, aphasia, lust, grief and moments of ecstatic wonder that come to nothing. The left side of the man's head is unshaven, and the right side of the skull, underneath the hair, is the sign, or signage, of this man's own self loathing. Again, what is inside, or underneath, surfaces.

Many of Biel's drawings are steeped in mysticism, its own kind of surfacing, while others allude to an interest in the mythic world. The recurring image of a man waist-high in water, takes on a spiritual resonance, each of these images like a small, karmic implosion. Perhaps Biel's figures in water wrest the pain and self doubt evidenced in other of Biel's works (man pounding his own face with his fists, a boy chewing on the head of a dove while sounding a triangle) from their own self-prescribed darkness, and the strange libidinal impulses that make their case in many of the drawings. Biel's paints the same young man again and again, as though this single figure represented the physical amalgam of every grief, youthful awakening and fantastic premonition that has ever been felt or experienced by anyone. He is the "he" in all of us, a ghost, to carry everywhere, all the time. Each drawing proposes an eternity, the ghostly space from which we build ourselves, to tear ourselves down again.

2003 by Eve Wood